Since nearly the beginning of my blog, I’ve been a fan of Valancourt Books, which publishes a lot of wonderful and neglected works from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve blogged about a lot of them, some of which are genuinely remarkable: see Richard Marsh’s creepy The Joss: A Reversion and Bertram Mitford’s sublime The Sign of the Spider, for instance. I have yet to be really disappointed by anything that Valancourt has reprinted.
The most recent release is Fugitive Anne (1902), by Rosa Praed, an author I was unfamiliar with:
The novel, set in the wilderness of Australia, is an adventure novel in the spirit of the works of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or the aforementioned The Sign of the Spider (1896). An adventurer wanders into the untamed wilds, encountering a variety of dangers both natural and man-made, and eventually discovers a lost tribe hidden in unexplored and forbidden territory. The difference? As the title suggests, the adventurer in Fugitive Anne is a woman!
Praed’s mother died in 1868, and 4 years later she married Arthur Campbell Praed. She lived with him at an isolated cattle station on Curtis Island for several years, apparently a dreary and lonely existence. When the cattle business failed, the couple moved to England, and Rosa began her successful career as a writer. The marriage did not recover, however, and Rosa and Arthur decided to live separately after a few years. The negative impressions of the institution of marriage stayed with her, however, and colored her writing.
The novel Fugitive Anne starts where Rosa Praed began — on the northeast coast of Australia. Traveling on a steamer with her cruel husband Elias and her black servant Kombo, Anne Bedo decides to escape her unhappy marriage. With the aid of Kombo, she fakes her own suicide by drowning, and flees into the wilds. They face harsh nature and the elements, murderous tribes and even cannibalistic ones, and must survive by Anne’s wit and Kombo’s loyalty. Eventually they meet up with a charming Danish explorer, and together the trio ends up discovering a legendary and long-lost offshoot of the Mayan civilization. Once there, however, new dangers await, including the treacherous politics of the Mayans, a gigantic if somewhat unusual monster, and a mythical place of death. On top of this, Elias Bedo has learned of Anne’s deception and is in hot pursuit, with sinister motives beyond fulfilling his wedding vows.
The story of Fugitive Anne is quite charming, and definitely kept me turning pages. It is rather fascinating to see a “lost civilization” adventure story written by a woman, and the tale definitely has a different tone than it male-penned comparisons. For instance, the lost civilization itself seems much more fleshed-out than those of Haggard and Mitford, with a lot of effort being spent on the rituals and customs of the Mayans.
One of the truly unique aspects of Fugitive Anne, for its time, is its strong feminist tone. Praed’s own experience with marriage made her very understanding of the need for women’s rights. In a 1902 interview (reprinted in the Valancourt edition of Fugitive Anne, along with an excellent introduction and other background material), Praed makes her views clear:
…I feel so much for my sisters who are trying to make an independence for themselves in any way. I think work is the best medicine for everybody, and if I had half a dozen daughters (I only have one) I should like to bring up each to a profession.
Praed’s depiction of Anne is surprisingly strong in the early stages of the novel; Anne concocts her escape plan and executes it with ingenuity and courage, and it is remarkable for the genre. However, it is a little disappointing to see Anne degrade into a somewhat submissive woman once she falls into the care of the Danish explorer Eric Hansen.
Praed’s characterization of race is even more troubling. Most of the aboriginals are violent, ignorant, murderous thugs — even cannibalistic. Clearly Praed’s view of the natives is colored by her childhood memories, and they are largely negative. The only exception to this is Kombo, but although he is loyal to Anne he is also shown to be superstitious, ignorant and even clownish. His pidgin English is genuinely difficult to understand, as the following example shows:
I believe so, Missa Anne. One fellow, black-policeman long-a Captain Cunningham, been tell me Maianbar black come down and make corroboree closeup Kooloola, Mainbar black want-im flour, sugar, ration… Ba’al mine think-it, that fellow look out talgoro (human flesh).
Nevertheless, there is definitely significant sympathy towards the natives on display, and through Kombo they are shown to have high potential. Consider some of Anne’s musings on Kombo:
It gave her no anxiety to know that both her honour and her life were at Kombo’s mercy, for she realised that they could only be assaulted across the boy’d dead body. In her trustful gratitude to Kombo, Anne almost cried sometimes when the thought of the treachery which pioneering Whites had dealt to his race. She was certain that those savages they had ill-used would have been faithful, had they been taught by their conquerors the meaning of fidelity. When the thought of the dispossessed tribe dying out down south, killed by the very vices they had learned from Englishmen, her heart burned with indignation. Setting aside superstition, Kombo loved her and was true to her because she had been kind to him, had never scoffed at his traditions, nor had tried to force on him a religion which experience told him had, on the part of its professors, led to outrage upon the women of his race, and cruelty to its men.
Such passages are a reminder that, to some extent, the racism and sexism in older novels should be viewed in a relative sense, and not in absolutes. Though Praed has depictions of blacks that are rather offensive according to modern sensibilities, she was far more progressive and understanding than most people of her era. Her views, and depictions of a sympathetic character like Kombo, probably helped shift perceptions amongst a wider audience. Similarly, her character Anne, though still stereotypically frail at times, shows an impressive amount of courage and resolve.
Overall, Fugitive Anne is a very charming and engaging novel. It doesn’t reach the level of classics by Haggard and Mitford, but is a great adventure story told from a woman’s perspective, and contains interesting insights into gender and racial issues of the era.